Friday, 16 September 2016

Higgins Museum, Bedford

A few weeks back we decided to pop along to the The Higgins, Bedford, and can honestly say it was a good couple of hours, as the entrance is free, definitely worth the visit.  It was also mentioned in the Standard recently too :standard top 10 places to visit

The Higgins now houses three attractions, Cecil Higgins Art Gallery, Bedford Museum and Bedford Gallery in one building in Castle Lane, dating back 200 years. Charles Higgins and his family moved to Bedford in the 1820s, founding a brewery at Castle Lane and building the family home next to it. The family business was very successful and they were important, influential figures within the town for over a hundred years. The brewery remained in the Higgins family until the late 1920s when Cecil Higgins, then over seventy, decided to sell it to Wells & Winch Ltd. in order to focus on his ambition to found a museum. Cecil, who had run the family business for many years, devoted his later life to collecting fine and decorative arts with the aim of founding a museum. The Cecil Higgins Art Gallery opened in 1949 in the house that had been Cecil's family home. Bedford Museum moved into the former Higgins & Sons Brewery building in 1981. The Art Gallery housed the family collection of ceramics, glass and objets d’art. Cecil Higgins left a trust fund to be used for museum purposes, but principally for acquiring works of art ranging from decorative arts to watercolours, furniture and prints.

The Bedford Museum was formed in the 1960s from the collections of Bedford Modern School and Bedford Borough Council and was originally housed in in a former garage and showroom on the Embankment. In the 1970s the former Higgins & Sons Castle Brewery buildings became available. John Turner was appointed Curator in 1974 and he led the transformation of the brewery buildings into the new town museum, which opened its doors to the public in 1981. The museum was merged with the Cecil Higgins Art Gallery in 2005, but both buildings remained essentially separate until the museum closed for redevelopment. The original home of the Higgins family has been developed into The Higgins Bedford. The building, following its recent redevelopment, now contains both the art gallery and museum, which house both permanent and temporary exhibitions. The Museum contains displays of social history, archaeology, natural history and ethnography collections telling the stories of the people and places that have shaped Bedford, and its relationship with the wider world, from prehistory to the present day.

The art gallery and museum are situated in a complex set of historic buildings. As well as the Higgins family home and the Higgins Brewery buildings, there is the Hexagonal Gallery which is the oldest part of the site, and Bedford Gallery, a Grade II listed building. The Hexagonal Gallery was built around 1804 upon the foundations of earthworks from Bedford Castle. The Bedord Gallery was built in the early 1840s. It was originally designed as a club known as the Castle Rooms, for members and supporters of the Whig Party. From 1848, the building was used for various religious gatherings In the early part of the 20th Century it became a billiard hall. For some time during World War Two, the BBC Music Department is believed to have used Bedford Gallery as a rehearsal room and recording studio.

Things to see
Check out the temporary exhibitions, as well as the permanent one, all are on the web site.

One of the temporary exhibitions was Bedford's War Machines and there was a lovely miniature scene created by Bedfrod's U3A, I just could resist taking a couple of photos.

The Higgins Bedford was refitted throughout during the redevelopment. Visitors can now enjoy watercolour, print and decorative art collections of international significance, including major collections of works by William Burges and Edward Bawden.  More local collections tell the story of Bedford and its people through archaeological finds, natural history, geology and social history.

The William Burges Collection’s can be found in the high-ceilinged hexagonal gallery. Burges, one of the most imaginative architects of the 19th Century, filled his buildings with richly-painted furniture, metalwork, ceramics and stained glass, all with his unique take on medieval style. One of the showpieces of the redevelopment, the William Burges Gallery features the art gallery and museum's world-renowned collection of painted furniture designed by Burges for his own use.

The artist designer Edward Bawden was one of the most influential artists of his generation. For the first time the Higgins’ collection of murals, prints, illustrations, wallpapers, textiles and watercolours, which made up the contents of Bawden’s studio, are housed together in this new gallery. There are regular changing exhibitions providing an insight into this artist’s work.

Other exhibits on display include items from the Higgins' collections including textiles, furniture, metalwork and glassware. The Higgins’ home remained in the family for almost a hundred years and contains displays that introduce the family and explore Cecil Higgins’ collection in terms of how the objects might have originally been used.

There is a gallery devoted to the Settlement of the local area. This gallery highlights the human journey through time. Objects, collections and people tell their own story about Bedford, its rivers and its countryside. The journey begins millions of years ago when the land was covered by ancient seas, inhabited by strange creatures, and reveals the forces of nature that have shaped the landscape. When the seas receded, new creatures including early humans began to inhabit the area. Through the objects on display it is possible to gain an understanding of how people worked, lived, played and worshipped from the earliest times up to the Middle Ages. Intertwined within this thread are invaders from now lost empires, seafarers who came to raid and trade, powerful religious houses and vanishing castles. The gallery focuses on some of the most important stories drawn from the Museum's archaeological collections.

A further gallery continues the story of Bedfordshire and its people's history. It explores Bedford and its growth from a small but busy medieval market town to a centre of industry and business today. Bedfordshire's agricultural and engineering heritage is celebrated with a focus on J. & F. Howard's Britannia Ironworks, W. H. Allen's Queen's Engineering Works, and the brickworks. The town and countryside and the people who live in Bedfordshire have all changed significantly over the centuries. The displays feature local people and show how they have responded to events, including the Agricultural Revolution, the coming of the railways, the growth of Victorian Bedford, the Second World War, newcomers looking for work and modern commercial and technology industries.

How to get there:  Leave Ampthill on B530 heading north up Bedford Street. Carry on the B530 until you eventually come to a set of traffic lights on the outskirts of Bedford – at the lights turn left into Ampthill Road (A5141) and drive straight along the A5141 until you reach a roundabout. Take the second exit onto Rope Walk. At the next roundabout, take the second exit onto Longholme Way – after a short distance you will cross the river, take the next left into The Embankment. Keep going along The Embankment until you reach the junction with Newham Road (on your right) – turn at the mini-roundabout into Newham Road. You will come to a junction, turn left into Castle Lane – follow this road round to the left and you will find The Higgins on your left.  The Sat Nav postcode is MK40 3XD but there are brown signs if you don't have a sat nav. It takes about half an hour (9  miles) depending on traffic conditions.

Arrival: There are 4 car parking spaces at the entrance of The Higgins for visitors with Blue Badges.  There is pay and display parking spaces along the Embankment (max. stay 2 hours) and the nearest public car park is at Lurke Street, just 5 minutes walk from The Higgins.  Alternatively, there is a Park and Ride service from Elstow, with frequent buses into the Town Centre.  On Saturdays 2 hours are free in Council owned car parks.
Parking in Bedford

Friday, 9 September 2016

Wrest Park

Wrest Park
Arrival: Once you have parked it is only a short walk to the entrance, which is in the shop.  There is also a cafe, childrens' play area and toilets in this part of the grounds.

History: Wrest Park is a country estate in Silsoe, Bedfordshire.  It comprises a Grade I listed country house, and Wrest Park Gardens surrounding the mansion.  Although there was an earlier House on the site, it was demolished in the 1830's and the present house was built in 1834–39, to designs by its owner Thomas de Grey, 2nd Earl de Grey (1781–1859), an amateur architect and the first president of the Royal Institute of British Architects, who was much inspired by French architecture.   Thomas was responsible not only for designing the new house at Wrest Park but also for carefully furnishing its interiors – again in a French theme.  De Grey also developed the gardens created by his ancestors.  The gardens and dairy contain a significant collection of 18th- and 19th-century statues.
Wrest Park was used as a hospital during the First World War until in September 1916 the mansion was badly damaged by fire.

In 2007 English Heritage obtained funding for the restoration of a number of the key features of the Wrest Park estate, including the mansion's formal entrance area, the garden statuary, railings and gates, and to alter the height of the carriage drive.  There are plans for the lakes and canals to be restored.  The long term objective is to restore Wrest Park House and gardens to their original splendour.

Inside the House 
Unfortunately, although it is a spectacular house, there are only a few rooms open to the public, and even these may be limited if there is an “event” going on.  The Conservatory is small but worth a visit, beyond that there is a small exhibition area with a few displays of historical information relating to the House.  As yet we have not been without event, so not able to comment, so worth checking before you set out, and there is no reduced fee.

The Conservatory
The Gardens 
Most visitors to Wrest Park come to see the impressive gardens, which were partially created by Lancelot "Capability" Brown.  He was involved with the family and gardens at Wrest Park for 20 years.  At Wrest Park, Brown created a man-made series of lakes that look like one flowing river, removing avenues and planting tree clumps to make the surroundings appear more natural.  There is a memorial column dedicated to Brown.

There are over 90 acres of gardens showcasing French, Dutch, Italian and English styles side by side.  Wrest Park's also has sweeping landscapes and plenty of woodland walks.  The appearance of the grounds does change depending with the seasons.

There are a number of hidden gems in the gardens.  These include the Orangery (now restored to its former glory), an ornate marble fountain, the 18th century Bowling Green House, a Chinese Temple and Bridge, the Bath House and Cascade and over 40 statues dotted around the grounds.  The Chinese Temple and Bridge originally formed part of a tableau imitating scenes found on Chinese willow pattern plates.  The Bath House was built c 1770 when plunge pools were popular.

The Long Water is encased on either side by walkways leading to the spectacular Archer Pavilion.  Built by Thomas Archer between 1709-11, this baroque pavilion, with its stunning interior, is the focal point of the gardens.

The Dairy Sculpture Gallery showcases some of the estate's most beautiful statues, now restored to their former glory.  The dairy which used to supply butter and cream for the de Grey family, was converted into an intimate gallery, bringing together precious garden statues too fragile to remain outside.

The bath house is my favourite part of the garden, even though it is a ‘ruin’.  Note that the Orangery is booked for events too.

The Bath House
How to get there:  Leave Ampthill on A507 heading east.  After a couple of miles take the turning to Silsoe on your right and follow this road until you reach a T junction in the centre of Silsoe.  Turn right onto High Street and after a short distance turn left by the Church into Park Avenue.  Carry on down the Avenue into the grounds of Wrest Park – you will see the visitors' car park signposted  to the right.  Pull into the car park where there are plenty of parking spaces.  The Sat Nav postcode is MK45 4HR but there are brown signs if you don't have a sat nav.  It takes about a quarter hour (4.5  miles) depending on traffic conditions.

Monday, 5 September 2016

A spot of baking

Meringue nests
The Country Markets have a nationwide reputation for excellent baking, Ampthill Country Market have small team of quality bakers, and try to offer some variety as well as regular signature bakes.

We welcome feedback, and would love to know your favourite bakes.

Here is a taster of some our recent bakes.
Treacle tart
Savoury scones

Thursday, 1 September 2016

Thaxted, Essex

After our visit to Audley End, we popped into Thaxted, this is a pretty Essex village that has a Windmill and a Guildhall.  It isn't somewhere to make a special visit from Ampthill, but worth stopping by if you are in the area.

Once you have parked in the public car park, walk a little way back up Margaret Street and turn left into Bell Lane which will bring you to the main street (Watling Street). The parish church is almost opposite you and John Webb's Windmill is beyond the church (walk through the churchyard and past the Almshouses). Alternatively, the Guildhall can be found by turning left onto Watling Street after a short walk down the hill.

So her is a littel bit about the place:

Thaxted is an ancient town that was mentioned in the Domesday Book. It developed from then and became a busy town in Saxon times and continued to develop until a market was granted to the town in 1205. The town continued to develop for a number of centuries and was involved in the cutlery trade.

The earliest record of a church was in 981, this being replaced with money from cutlery in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Town Street (Watling Street today) runs down hill from the church in a south-easterly direction but has changed significantly from its original design. However, the Guildhall still survives, but certainly not the original building.In the sixteenth century it is known that weaving made an appearance, and an attempt was made to establish a Guild of Clothiers in 1583. Other street names such as Fishmarket Street and Mill Row may give indications of the town's history. Surprisingly, given the size of the town, there are still six places of worship in Thaxted, which is a legacy of its past Nonconformist history. Quakers were also known to have met in the town.


Explore Thaxted
Town Street (at the bottom of the Watling Street hill) is a good starting point for any exploration of Thaxted. The Guildhall is the first place of interest that you will see. Once the administrative centre of the town, it is thought it was built sometime between 1462 and 1475. It is believed it was not really a Guildhall as the design is more of a moote or mote hall, i.e. a civic meeting place.

There was a thriving cutlery industry in Thaxted at the time the Guildhall was built, so it is likely this contributed financially to its construction. At one time it is known that over a third of the working population were involved in the cutlery trade in some way. However, it was when the cutlery trade began to decline that Thaxted was granted a Charter and became a Borough. In 1686, the Charter was revoked and during the years that followed the Guildhall fell into disrepair. A number of attempts at restoration of the Guildhall have taken place over the centuries, including being used as the town's Grammar School at one point and samples of childrens' work can be seen in the Guildhall. The most recent restoration was carried out by Essex County Council in the 1970's and the Guildhall continues to represent the civic life of the town, and is in active daily use. Regular meetings are held there, and it is also used for exhibitions of local crafts and interests at frequently throughout the year. Thaxted Guildhall has limited opening times so check before visiting.

Seen from Town Street, the Parish Church towers behind the Guildhall and is probably the next stop on your exploration.Thaxted Church is one of the most impressive churches in Essex and is often called the “Cathedral of Essex”. The Church stands on a hill and dominates the town, so from whichever direction you approach, it can be seen many miles away. It has been described as the finest parish church in the county. The building began in 1340  and was completed in 1510. The large church is definitely worth a visit. As well as many things of architectural interest, it also has two organs, eight bells hanging in the 15th Century West Tower and lots of stained glass windows. The large bells are housed in the upper part of the tower which is 80 feet high. It is claimed if the wind is in a certain direction, the bells have been heard as far as Great Dunmow, which is 7 miles away. Particularly impressive is the stone spire, claimed to be the only mediaeval stone spire in Essex – it rises to a height of more than 55 metres. It has twice been destroyed by lightning and each time has been built up again to the original design – who said lightning doesn't strike twice?

The other main place of interest in Thaxted is the John Webb Windmill. A short walk through the churchyard, between the Almshouses and along picturesque Mill Row brings you to the Windmill which stands out above the local landscape. It has been fully restored to working order over recent decades after falling into disrepair and it is a well worth a climb up the winding steps to see the workings inside and the view outside.Unfortunately, it only has limited opening hours so check before you visit. Built in 1804, John Webb's Windmill is a tower mill and is the only remaining windmill in Thaxted. This windmill was the largest and most advanced of all the Thaxted mills and it worked for a hundred years. It was built to satisfy a growing demand for flour at a time of agricultural expansion and was constructed from local materials.  John Webb owned the farmland on which the mill was built. The gallery, which can be seen at first floor level surrounded the mill and was used for loading and unloading from carts and wagons. There is a picnic area surrounding the Windmill, along with benches to sit and look at the surrounding countryside.

Once you have visited these main sites, make sure you still wander wander around the centre of the town and see other buildings that have something of interest. For example, Clarance House, opposite the Church is an excellent example of an early eighteenth century Queen Anne building. Then there is Stoney Lane,  part of an ancient highway leading to Saffron Walden and containing a number of timber-framed houses. The houses near the Guildhall have the timber exposed, while on others it is hidden beneath the render which in many cases has “pargetting”, the traditional local decoration. If you are a fan of Gustav Holst then make sure you see the building called “The Manse”, but originally called “The Steps”, where the Holst family lived.

How to get there:  Leave Ampthill on A507 heading east towards the A1. Drive through Baldock and follow the A505 in the direction of Royston. Stay on the A505 and by-pass Royston and after about 5 miles you will need to turn right onto B1383 in the direction of Saffron Walden. Stay on the B1383 until you reach the B184 and then you head south and will shortly arrive in Thaxted. There is free public car park (with toilets) at the bottom of Margaret Street (postcode CM6 2QN). Margaret Street is a small turning on your left with a pub car park on the corner, when you drive into Thaxted from the north on the B184.  The journey from Ampthill takes about an hour and a quarter (46 miles) depending on traffic conditions.